If you are a politician in India, you can get away with murder, literally, and even enjoy election and re-election.
As the world’s largest democracy embarks on a huge election that will witness at least 800 million people casting ballots for thousands of candidates vying for seats in parliament, it is instructive to know that many parliamentary candidates and even some sitting MPs are convicted criminals, while others face serious criminal charges. Reflecting the deep and pervasive culture of political corruption in India, a staggering number of politicians – i.e., those men and women entrusted to preserve the country’s laws -- have themselves broken the laws, sometimes repeatedly and with impunity.
According to the Association for Democratic Reforms and National Election Watch, two anti-corruption groups that advocate for political transparency, some 162 Indian parliamentarians elected in 2009 (out of 543 elected members of the Lok Sabha, India’s lower house of parliament) are currently involved in no less than 306 criminal cases. Of those 162 MPs (most of whom are running for re-election this year), almost half, 76, face very serious charges, including kidnapping and even murder.
According to the ADR-NEW report, 24 MPs who faced criminal cases in 2004 were re-elected in the 2009 election. Not only that, but many of these lawmakers have been able to delay prosecution of their alleged crimes for many years, even decades. ADR/NEW reported that some criminal cases have been tied up in the courts for more than 20 years, while the average case has remained pending for seven years. Thus, as these litigation sagas stay in limbo, scores of MPs are free to pursue their political careers largely unimpeded.
All told, a total of 50 MPs currently have a total of 136 criminal cases pending against them for at least 10 years. The longest pending case is currently against Guddu Premchand, a Congress Party MP from Ujjain in the central state of Madhya Pradesh, who was charged with murder almost 30 years ago. Sisir Kumar Adhikari, an MP for the regional All India Trinamool Congress party who represents Kanthi in West Bengal, had had a case of rioting and theft pending against him for 28 years. An MP for the center-right Bharatiya Janata Party, Ramakant Yadav, who represents Azamgarh in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, had a murder case against him pending for 25 years. Another Uttar Pradesh MP, Ramkishun, who represents the district of Chandauli for the regional Samajwadi Party, has had a robbery case pending for 24 years. "This shows that political parties continue to give tickets to candidates despite [them] having criminal cases pending against them," said the report.
One of the most outrageously crime-ridden parties is the small Jharkhand Mukti Morcha, a regional party from the northeastern state of Jharkand. Seven MPs from this state (or half of the total) are facing serious criminal charges, according to the Indian Express newspaper. Following Jharkhand, the states with the highest percentage of sitting MPs facing criminal charges comprise Maharashtra (47.9 percent); Gujarat (42.3 percent); Bihar (40 percent); and Uttar Pradesh (37.5 percent).
On a percentage basis, the far-right, Hindu extremist Shiv Sena party has the dubious distinction of having 80 percent (eight out of 10) of its MPs facing serious criminal charges. In terms of political parties with the highest numbers of felonious MPs, Congress (48) just edges out the BJP (46). However, on a percentage basis, since BJP has fewer members than Congress in the current Lok Sabha, they have larger share of criminal MPs – some 41 percent of BJP MPs are currently charged with criminal offenses, versus “only” 24 percent for Congress. Even more astonishing, five Lok Sabha MPs are currently facing a total of 14 murder cases (all of which have been pending in courts for at least 10 years). One man, Kameshwar Baitha of the JMM, has 10 cases of murder filed against him – charges which have been pending for an average of 12 years. (For good measure, Baitha also has another six cases of attempted murder). Incidentally, Baitha’s ugly past has not hurt his political ambitions – he is currently running for a parliamentary seat on behalf of the Trinamool party.
A total of 20 MPs in the Lok Sabha are also currently facing a total of 30 cases of kidnapping and wrongful confinement – on average, these cases have been pending for at least 10 years. That one-man crime wave, Baitha, also faces seven chases of kidnapping.
Consider some of these other dubious Congress MP candidates: Pawan Kumar Bansal represents the Chandigarh constituency in the northwestern state of Punjab. However, Bansal (who is seeking re-election) was forced to resign as railway minister under Prime Minister Manmohan Singh last May after his nephew was implicated in a huge railroad bribery-corruption scam. The taint of that criminal conspiracy did not hinder Bansal’s political career.
Or consider the peculiar case of Ashok Shankarrao Chavan, the former chief minister of the western state of Maharashtra (and a son of a former chief minister of the state). In 2010, one year after Chavan was named chief minister, he was asked to resign by Congress leader Sonia Gandhi herself after it was revealed that three of his relatives had illegally obtained upmarket government housing. But those corruption allegations hardly derailed Chavan political career – just last month, Congress allowed him to run for parliament in his native state.
The BJP also has a long list of prodigal sons running for parliamentary office. B.S. Yeddyurappa was once forced to quit as chief minister of the southern state of Karnataka after he was connected to various mining and land appropriation scandals. It emerged in late 2010 that he had used the power of his office to grant some prime real estate to his son, while profiting from various illegal mining deals across the region. But like a phoenix arising from the ashes, Yeddyurappa has returned to politics this year to contest for a seat in the Lok Sabha. He even mocked Rahul Gandhi of Congress after the latter recently condemned him for his past repeated acts of corruption. “If Rahul Gandhi is speaking about Yeddyurappa, it shows how much Congress fears about Yeddyurappa,” he told reporters. “They are also aware of the public support and affection I enjoy; they think of affecting my popularity by making such remarks, but they won't be successful.”
In the city of New Delhi alone, at least 23 candidates for the Lok Sabha have criminal charges pending against them. Of that group, 13 face serious criminal charges, including kidnapping, criminal intimidation and extortion. Maheish Giri, the BJP candidate for East Delhi, has four serious criminal complaints alone on his plate. Not to be outdone, the sitting Congress MP for West Delhi, Mahabal Mishra (who, of course, is seeking re-election), has three serious cases pending against him. Another Delhi MP hopeful, Mohammad Shakeel Saifi of the Bahujan Samaj Party, which represents low-caste peoples, faces charges of sexually assaulting a woman.
Indian MPs are also heavily armed – and they frequently purchase their weapons illegally. ADR reported that between 1987 and 2012, 756 guns were purchased by MPs and other senior government officials; and between 2001 and 2012 alone, a total of 82 MPs purchased weapons directly from the state at below-market prices (these were illegal imported weapons confiscated by the government). In many cases, MPs have acquired automatic and semi-automatic weapons, which are usually the province of the military or terrorist and extremist organizations and prohibited for ordinary citizens. Amazingly, 18 of these 82 MPs were facing criminal charges, including murder, attempted murder and kidnapping, at the time they bought the guns.
In one particularly egregious case, an MP named Atiq Ahmed from Allahabad, Uttar Pradesh, who has been described as a “gang-lord,” at one time faced 44 separate criminal cases, including accusations of murder, attempted murder, kidnapping and extortion. Ahmed served in parliament from 2004 to 2009 for the regional Samajwadi Party, which expelled him in 2008. Nonetheless, since he was not convicted of any of the crimes he was charged with at the time, he ran for parliament again in 2009 for another party called Apna Dal. He lost that race and now faces a multitude of charges in court.
Courts in India have attempted to remove and or ban convicted criminals (or those facing serious criminal charges) from political office, yet felons continue to proliferate in the halls of government. In fact, India’s Supreme Court’s recently issued an order declaring that politicians facing criminal charges will have a one-year limit for their cases to be heard in court. By demanding speedier corruption trials for government officials, the court hopes to remove lawmakers who are hit with convictions. The ADR said in a statement that it is up to the public to throw out corrupt officeholders. “Political parties have continued to field candidates with serious criminal cases because of their 'winnability' factor. In this scenario, the role of citizens becomes pre-eminent. The upcoming Lok Sabha elections gives us the opportunity to elect clean and more accountable MPs," the group stated.
Clearly, political corruption is so deeply rooted in Indian politics that one mere election will not be enough to clean up the system. Politicians of mainstream parties work hand-in-hand with big businessmen to profit from illegal financial deals, while smaller regional parties are often linked to local criminal gangs as silent partners in power.
Trilochan Sastry, chairman and founder of ADR, discussed the magnitude of the corruption problem for Yahoo India. “Corrupt politics only begins with the election and then gets a five-year term,” Sastry wrote, referring to the term in office for elected MPs. “What follow is huge contracts and freebies to those who are corrupt in return for big kickbacks. So we get scam after scam.”
Indian politicians have also plundered the country’s natural resources. “We also have mining and mineral scams in various states where public resources were handed over for a song to a few at the cost of the many,” Sastry said. “It is important to note that… coal and natural gas are public resources -- owned by us.”
An Indian political analyst named A. K. B. Krishnan wrote in the Gulf Times that corruption is a subject that all parties (regardless of size or geographical jurisdiction) condemn, but nonetheless allow within their party structures as a necessary evil, the cost of doing business in a country where democracy is still quite young and income inequality remains stark. “Corruption has become endemic to the country as has the hypocrisy that accompanies it,” Krishnan wrote. “While major parties cried hoarse about the endemic corruption, the grim fact was that they all had a huge percentage of criminal MPs in parliament. These parties had let their MPs create unsolicited commotion and disruption in session after session as the season of scams played out.”
Krishnan further lamented that the public’s anger over corruption in government seems to have faded as the excitement of the election beckons. “The expectation was that it would be a big issue during this year’s campaign, but it has now become a marginal issue,” he wrote. “Even the [upstart] Aam Aadmi Party, which was obsessed with corruption, has belatedly embraced other key issues like ‘communalism’ to make the party more appealing and inclusive.”